Film Review: After the Storm

A disillusioned father tries to pull his family back together in another simple but powerful drama from the Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda.
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Fans of Hirokazu Kore-eda's movies have gotten used to their jewel-like precision, deep insights into family, and overwhelming emotions. From the harsh, despairing, fact-based Nobody Knows, the writer, director and editor has branched out into more optimistic but still troubling dramas: the switched-at-birth dilemmas of Like Father, Like Son, the estranged brothers in I Wish, the outcast sibling in Our Little Sister, the specter of death in Still Walking.

After the Storm may come as something of a surprise to his followers. For long stretches a fairly conventional story about a lost, bitter and flailing middle-aged man, the movie doesn't fully reveal itself until its astonishing second half. It's a mark of the director's skill that even the movie’s lesser scenes are so consistently compelling.

Ryota (Kore-eda regular Hiroshi Abe) once wrote a prize-winning novel, but that was a long time ago. Now he works halfheartedly in a detective agency, finding evidence to break up marriages, sometimes double-crossing his clients or outright extorting them.

Ryota has sunk to rifling through his mother's apartment, searching for anything to take. Recently widowed, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki, as extraordinary here as she was playing Abe's mother in Still Walking) lives in a rundown housing complex partly because her husband was a scoundrel and inveterate gambler who wasted their savings. Yoshiko tolerates her daughter Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi) but dotes on Ryota.

Yoshiko's little aphoristic digs—"You're taking too long to bloom," "Why envy the future?"—reveal as much about her life as Ryota's. Listening to a Teresa Teng song, she laments, "I never loved 'deeper than the sea,'" a complaint but also an admission that she "can't understand why things turned out like this."

A gambler himself, Ryota can't pay his bills and isn't even a very good detective. But he loves his son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa) and will do anything to win back his ex-wife Kyoko (Yōko Maki). For Ryota, that means pawning his camera, cadging money from Chinatsu, avoiding debtors and pretending to Shingo that he is a good father.

It's frankly not that promising a premise, and some scenes feel perfunctory, despite fine acting from Kore-eda regulars like Lily Franky. But the director is actually setting out several plot strands that pay off spectacularly by the finish.

A typhoon, one of many that summer, draws Ryota, Shingo and Kyoko together in Yoshiko's apartment. Ryota has one night to restore his family, an impossible task given his delusions about himself. In a long but masterful sequence, Kore-eda performs the equivalent of a narrative miracle. Using apparently inconsequential plot incidents that came before, all the asides and references about the family's history, he strips away Ryota's faults and weaknesses to reveal someone worthy of love.

Ryota's realization of who he is, of what he has lost and the little that's left to him, is as crushing as anything Kore-eda has filmed. The questions Kore-eda asks, the problems he sets forth, are uncomfortable, deeply personal ones that apply to us all. After the Storm may not have many answers, but it does offer hope to those who will take it.

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